Former NFL Players Are Turning to Digital Startups

Mike Wahle, Tiki Barber and others

When injuries permanently sidelined National Football League offensive guard Mike Wahle a few years ago, like all retiring pro athletes, he had to ask himself, “What’s next?” And while some guys might have rested on their laurels, the 6-foot-6-inch former all-pro got a master’s degree from London Business School before dedicating himself to founding a social platform called Crowd Cam, which will go live before the upcoming football season.

While former athletes have always looked to television and radio for second careers, Wahle represents a growing breed of ex-NFLers taking aim at digital media. Wahle’s Crowd Cam offers athletes, coaches and teams free profile pages that aggregate their content from social nets such as Twitter and Instagram while giving obsessed fans a single stop to keep tabs on the musings of their sports favorites.

“The best thing about sports is storylines,” Wahle said. “Every week of an NFL season is like a chapter in a book. We’ve created an environment where people can both interact during the lead-up to the games as well as their aftermath.”

Seventy-five athletes have committed to using the platform as well as a handful of college football coaches, he said, adding that “98 percent of their profile page will be created for them through the aggregation system, and from there they sprinkle in their own text or video content.” Like many digital hopefuls, Wahle’s business model leans on advertising. So he’s teamed with ad-world players, and they are finalizing what Crowd Cam’s paid promos will be. Think BuzzFeed-like integrations and sponsor takeovers for profile pages.

“There will be opportunities for brands that are interested in content marketing, native advertising and using video to insert themselves into different fan streams,” Wahle said.

Another notable NFL retiree attempting to tackle interactive media is Tiki Barber with his year-old Thuzio, an online service that lets consumers book lunches and appearances with famous athletes. And pro football veteran Tony Gonzalez seems to have a digital career on his mind even though he has two years left on his playing contract, launching an exercise mobile app with tech company FitStar.

And then there’s Tony Mandarich, who is best known as an overhyped draft pick in 1989. He launched a Web marketing service in 2005 that he says is growing annually by 50 percent in recent years.

“My advice to those guys just starting out is to be ready for constant change,” Mandarich said. “The changes don’t happen every quarter—they occur every month. You have to stay up to speed or get left behind.”

And with more pro athletes who grew up with digital set to retire in the next several years, the competition among former ballplayers will likely intensify.

“There’s only so many broadcasting gigs for former athletes,” said Bob Dorfman, a creative director for Baker Street Advertising and a sports marketing analyst. “So it makes sense to go where the jobs, the money, the fan base and marketing opportunities exist. And that’s in digital these days.”